It’s easy to be cynical in today’s world. Social media and 24-hour news provide access to a constant stream of concerning updates and outrage, with numbing effect. No matter your political ideology or worldview, it’s hard not to feel like the sky is falling.
In this charged atmosphere of impersonal and often combative exchanges, positivity is too rare a commodity. But every now and again, we are reminded that life is so much more than political differences or online squabbles.
Every so often, we get a wakeup call about what’s important — and James “Jimmy” Bryant offers such a reminder. Bryant, known by some as the “unofficial mayor of Belfast,” died earlier this month of a heart attack. The way he lived his life, as described by those close to him, should resonate with all of us.
“He had a heart the size of the universe. He hated to see anybody sad,” said Beth Benner of Swanville. “He taught us to learn to love everybody.”
Bryant had lived with Beth and Tom Benner for several years, calling them “Mom” and “Dad.”
Bryant was a recognizable figure in Belfast with his bright safety vest and sense of humor. Though 53 years old, intellectual disabilities led to his developmental age being around 10, according to his foster family. But that didn’t stop him from being a cheerful member of his community.
“I’m really going to miss his smile and his laugh,” said Neal Parent, a member of the Leaky Boot Jug Band, which featured Bryant on the namesake jug. “He was definitely local color. Everybody knew him.”
When he wasn’t on stage with the band, Bryant was known for lending a helping hand. Mike Urchin said Bryant would often come by the Belfast Co-op and help with various tasks.
“He almost thought he was my boss,” Urchin said. “He’d basically kick it with me for the duration of my shift. He was always looking to be as helpful as he possibly could, and he was always offering a hand. He was always good for a laugh, a really funny guy. Always telling jokes and trying to make people smile. He was a positive influence, and he definitely shed a lot of light on a lot of people.”
We sometimes expect the worst of each other in our highly-polarized society. Cynicism is a first impulse for many. We all could stand to be a little bit more like Bryant — and the community that welcomed him — by trusting in the goodness in others. He approached everyone as a friend, and that’s not a bad place to start.
“James always described everybody as his friend. He couldn’t remember their name, but they meant the world to him. Everybody was his friend,” Beth Benner explained. “He could go up to anybody with a dump truck, an 18-wheeler or a motorcycle, and if they talked to him for a minute, oh my God, you might as well have given him the world. People don’t realize that if you just take a second and talk to somebody, it can mean so much.”